Editorial note: Here & Now is showing these images from the 14th and 16th centuries, which can be found in museums, libraries historical textbooks and Islamic books of art. In this interview, our guest explains that the Quran does not expressly ban images of the Prophet Muhammad, and historic images such as these are embraced by many Muslims.
Since the deadly attacks at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, much has been said about how all images of the Prophet Muhammad are banned, regardless of whether they are offensive caricatures or respectful paintings.
But the Muslim holy book the Quran does not expressly ban images of the prophet. Historically, artists depicted the prophet in paintings that Muslims considered educational and beneficial as long as they are not used as idols for worshiping.
“The Prophet Mohammed is depicted from 13th century onward," Christiane Gruber of the University of Michigan, who studies Islamic book arts and paintings of the Prophet Muhammad, told Here & Now's Robin Young. "He may have been depicted earlier than that but unfortunately we've lost quite a bit of evidence because of the Mongol raids and conquests across Eurasia, so the evidence is medieval onward."
In the 1500s, artists began adding a white veil in front of the prophet's face. Despite the change, images abound. By the 1800s, visual representations of the Prophet Muhammad became scarce, but it was not until a couple decades ago that images became charged with controversy and insult.
"There is no fatwa, or legal decree, that prohibits images of the Prophet Muhammad before the last two decades," said Gruber. "In fact the flurry of legal prohibitions on images of Muhammad are a distinct result of the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy."
In 2005, the conservative Danish daily Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons, one of the prophet wearing a bomb in his turban. It sparked protests across the Muslim world.
"There is no fatwa, or legal decree, that prohibits images of the Prophet Muhammad before the last two decades."
“I think that the problem with the image today of the prophet," she said, "is that it is almost intractably entangled with these cartoons, not just the Charlie Hebdo ones, but the Jyllands-Posten ones. So I think we’re getting our vocabulary and our concepts confused here. There’s a difference between making an image and making an offensive image. And these are not one in the same thing.”
Many Muslims disagree. Any image of the prophet, they say, is an offensive image.
- Christiane Gruber: "The Koran Does Not Forbid Images of the Prophet"
- Christiane Gruber, associate professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Michigan. She studies Islamic book arts and paintings of the Prophet Muhammad.
This segment aired on January 16, 2015.